Montana State University

Spring 2009

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Mountains and Minds

Place of the heart April 27, 2009 by Carol Schmidt • Published 04/27/09

Montana remains the bedrock of Ivan Doig's prose and thought

Photo by Thomas Lee

More than 50 years ago Ivan Doig packed his bags, took a train from Dupuyer, on Montana's Front Range, and traveled to Chicago for college. He has never again lived in the Big Sky state. Yet Montana has never really left him, for the state is the source of most of Doig's writings. From his eloquent memoir, This House of Sky, his first book that was a finalist for a National Book Award, to his most recent novels, Montana remains the bedrock of his prose and thinking.

Doig returns to Montana for the source of The Eleventh Man, published last fall. In fact, the World War II-period piece is inspired by the death of 11 players on Montana State College's football team. In Doig's words, while the novel is a work of fiction, there is a "breath of actuality to the plot premise of World War II's disproportionate toll on a given number of young men who had played football together: by the accounts available, eleven starting players of Montana State College in Bozeman did perish in that conflict."

Doig also credits another MSU connection, Montana, A History of Two Centuries, written by Doig's friend and MSU's late president, Michael P. Malone, and coauthors, the late Richard B. Roeder, also a former MSU history professor, and William Lang. In addition, Doig received an honorary doctorate from MSU in 1984.

Doig is now at work on his 13th book, a novel set in Butte, which he expects will be published next year. He took a few minutes from his disciplined work routine to respond to questions about his most recent book, the incident that inspired it, writing and his thoughts about the state that continues to be at the heart of his work.

How long have you known about the MSC football team of 1941? How did it become central to the plot of one of your novels?

The late, great and beloved Dave Walter, who was then the research librarian at the Montana Historical Society and as delightful as he was insightful, dropped word of the MSC team to me a quarter of a century ago, which is just yesterday to a novelist's mind. Whatever I thought I was researching that day at the Society's library in Helena, he rolled those big shoulders of his and said, "Hey, this is the kind of thing that comes looking for you" and passed me an old file he had come across about that team and its dire fate in World War II. What persisted in me, of course, was the story idea: What if you were the eleventh man, trying to dodge as (death) closed in on a team, one by one?

You have sold more than a million books in 30 years, and all remain in print. What do you attribute as the reason for your books' longevity?

I think I'll stick with the answer-for-the-ages that our eternal sage of Western matters, Wallace Stegner, gave when an interviewer asked him what a writer had to do to make a lasting contribution about portraying life out here: "Write good books."

It would seem that education transformed your life, since you were the first member of your family to go to college. Do you think education continues to be valuable to young people and why?

Over and over I heard it from my father and his ranch hands: "Kid, get yourself an education." I would think that ought to be on the state seal these days, instead of Oro y Plata. Learning how to think and function in a world changing so rapidly and inexorably seems to me absolutely essential to today's youngsters; you can't light out for the territory or hunker in on the homestead and be a citizen of your time any more.

Do you have any thoughts about how Montana universities can best prepare the state and its people for its future?
Education is an investment. In my case, a college scholarship took me from being a $150-a-month ranch hand to a guy, as you said, who has put a million books into the commerce of the era, a lot of those through Montana bookstores. I'm not savvy enough about the future to know specifically what Montana's universities ought to be focusing on, except to say those institutions absolutely must keep being the tickets for the state's young people to get on in life. If it proves to be the ticket out of Montana for some of them, as it was for me, in the long run that is justifiable, I think. One way or another, those of us in what I call "the Montana Diaspora" (usually for job reasons) stay linked to Montana.

Those of us in what I call the Montana Diaspora stay linked to Montana
While most of your readers know of your connections to both White Sulphur Springs and Dupuyer, you also have a connection to Gallatin County, don't you?
Heart-deep, literally. I've told in Heart Earth, possibly my secret favorite among all my books, the story of my mother's last months of life, when she and my father and I were herding sheep at the north end of the Bridger Mountains in the summer of 1945. "The Gallatin" was something like a valley of milk and honey to us, compared with the tough sagebrush country around Sixteen and Ringling. I cannot describe what a cloud of pleasure it was in 1984 to come back to the Gallatin Valley and, no doubt by the fine hand of Mike Malone, receive an honorary doctorate from MSU.

Photo by Thomas Lee

The view from your office window is that of Seattle and Puget Sound. Does your separation from the state make it easier or more difficult to write about the state? Do you anticipate a permanent return to Montana?
The accidental goddess of writers like me is Greta Garbo, with that magnificently accented self-excusal from the public world, "I want to be alone." Actually, have to be alone, to get the writing done, is more like it. So in that sense, not being physically in Montana-or for that matter Chicago, which is also part of my past-does help with the books; the quiet of this same Puget Sound suburb has produced all dozen of them, from This House of Sky to The Eleventh Man, so I have to think it works. As to the permanent return to Montana, I can't resist making the answer James Joyce did when he was asked in Paris, after Ulysses, if he would ever be moving back to Dublin: "Have I ever left?"

Do you believe stories about Montana and the region will continue to appeal to an increasingly global readership and why?

My novel The Whistling Season, set in a one-room school in the Marias River homestead country in 1910, is just about to be published in Japanese, so from where I sit there is a readership out there in the greater globe interested in Montana matters. Again, I think it goes back to that quote of Stegner's; if the quality of the work is good enough, any place of the heart that you write about-the brilliant contemporary African and Australian novelists prove this-will find readers.

You write on a computer but are a reluctant e-mail user. Do you have thoughts about how electronic communications are changing literature and readers? Does the book have a future?

This very day my literary agent called me about a new deal with an audio company, which will record nearly all my books unabridged-not so much for audio cassettes or CDs but for digital downloads. This is an indicator of the kind of change that is going on, as more and more literature goes online one way or another. I do think that for as long as any of us are around, there will be books to some extent; reading books has always been an elite pursuit, in a sense, and it seems reasonable that there will continue to be an audience of intellect that will want to hold a 21st century book just as the earliest booklovers wanted to cradle that Gutenberg Bible.

Do you have any thoughts on the state of American literacy?

I think it's difficult to measure the literacy of this society right now, when everyone but me seems to be up to their ears in e-mail, until we have more perspective on what the online capacities do to people. I do believe that the demise of newspapers is really bad news for us all; bloggers are not a substitute for the kind of painstaking and expensive investigations the best newspapers undertake.

You return frequently to Montana. What are the thoughts about the state today as opposed to the Montana you left many decades ago?

Montana never ceases to be a little rugged and ornery, a bit wild and soulful, a place with roaming room for the imagination.
The great change that I've seen in Montana came a couple of generations ago now, as could be seen when I returned to the state in the late 1970s to gather the last of the research for This House of Sky. Carol (his wife) and I spent most of a summer going around to the places where I had lived and it was a different, less hidebound Montana than I had grown up in. An environmental movement had been born, the rattletrap state government that always seemed to be looking over its shoulder for the ghost of the Anaconda Company had been modernized with the new state constitution, progressive politicians were in the main statewide offices. Then, as we formed new friendships in Bozeman and Helena and Missoula as my books came out, there was a feeling of new blood. One example: Carol and I are deeply interested in the fate of the Rocky Mountain Front, the old, loved landscape of my teenage years that has come into my novels as the Two Medicine country, and we have been supporters of the Nature Conservancy's efforts along the Front. When I was a kid, around Dupuyer and Choteau, most of the hardbitten old ranchers there at the foot of the Rockies would have cussed at any notion of cooperating with an "outside" outfit like the Conservancy. The younger ranchers today have smartened up from that old blindered attitude and seen that their existence is tied to conservation of the Front as an unbroken ecological area.

You've now established yourself as a fiction writer, even though This House of Sky is masterful non-fiction. Do you have plans to write another non-fiction book?

A writer should never say never, so there is always the chance that I'll look up from my fingers one day and discover they're turning out non-fiction. For now, though, I'm busy delivering Morrie Morgan, the almost flabbergastingly popular schoolteacher from my novel The Whistling Season, into Butte in the tumultuous aftermath of World War I. That will keep me occupied the rest of this year. There's another novel set in the Two Medicine country, in my own growing-up time there in, as the old-timers used to say, "the middle of the last century," brewing after that.

Do you believe the themes that shaped Montana in the 19th and 20th century-those of the rugged individualist and the wilderness of the landscape and the soul-still will shape it in the 21st? If not, what do you think will form Montana's near future?
My Ph.D. is in history, so I'm only licensed to drive in the past. I would hope, though, that Montana never ceases to be a little rugged and ornery, a bit wild and soulful-a place with roaming room for the imagination.